The Raiders of Westminster Abbey
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these kids were stealing relics 30 years before Indiana Jones made it look cool.
By Claire McLaughlin
Most of London was still sound asleep. But early Christmas morning, 1950, four Scottish college students were wide awake … and breaking into Westminster Abbey. After driving 20 hours from Glasgow, Ian Hamilton, Alan Stuart and Gavin Vernon — armed with little more than a crowbar and youthful audacity — jimmied their way into the 10th-century church through a side door, while Kay Matheson waited outside.
Their objective? To retrieve Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, an ancient sandstone block used as the coronation seat of Scottish monarchs. Until, that is, it was captured as a spoil of war during King Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in 1296, after which it was sent to Westminster and installed inside the wooden throne used during the crowning of British sovereigns.
Spiriting away four or five hundredweight of sacred stone from the very heart of the empire might fire the imagination of the world.…
Busting into the abbey proved surprisingly easy, but wrenching the 26-inch-long, 336-pound stone from its tight compartment left the coronation chair cracked and splintered. Once freed, the stone proved too heavy for the young raiders, who promptly dropped it, breaking it in two. Hamilton, the 25-year-old mastermind, discovered that the mishap actually made the stone easier to manage: He was able to lift the smaller piece and deliver it safely to Matheson, and the trio then dragged the larger section out on Hamilton’s jacket. They then dispersed, with Matheson driving north to deposit one portion at a friend’s house in the Midlands, while Hamilton and Stuart hid the second chunk in a field in Kent.
Within an hour of the theft, Westminster’s night watchman realized the stone was missing. He raised the alarm, and, for the first time in 400 years, the border between England and Scotland was closed. By then the four thieves were already well on their way home; having disposed of the evidence, they were able to pass through border checks without raising suspicion. When the border reopened a week later, Hamilton drove south once more to retrieve the stone and bring it back to Scotland undetected — the finishing touch on a heist six centuries in the making.
In the 1200s, the stone was hardly the powerful symbol of Scottish independence it was destined to become. Benjamin Hudson, professor of history and medieval studies at Penn State, says Edward’s capture of the stone was part of a broader pillaging that included most of the northern country’s administrative documents and “everything that had an association with the kingship of Scotland.” While Scots certainly weren’t pleased to see their coronation stone carted off to England, the attack had caused so much suffering in Scotland that the loss of a relic was the least of anyone’s concern.
It wasn’t until the rise of 19th-century nationalism and the foundation of the Scottish National Party in 1934 that the stone once again became an object of increasing political interest. By the winter of 1950, Hamilton hoped that liberating it would stir up a sense of Scottish patriotism, and he was acutely aware of the symbolic potential of such an unprecedented event. “Spiriting away four or five hundredweight of sacred stone from the very heart of the empire might fire the imagination of the world if it were carefully carried out,” he wrote in his account of the incident, Stone of Destiny. And when Hamilton and company finally turned the stone over to authorities in April 1951, they did so with plenty of symbolic flair, leaving it placed on the high altar of Arbroath Abbey, where Scottish independence had been declared in 1320.
The stone was promptly shipped back to England, but Hamilton and his fellow nationalists had succeeded in restoring the symbolic power of the stone in the popular imagination. Remarkably, they were never prosecuted. “[For] people who look at it more emotionally,” notes Indiana University history lecturer Erik Lindseth, “the stone can be viscerally important.” Important enough that the British Parliament returned it to Scotland in 1996 — a politically savvy gesture of goodwill.
Former first minister of Scotland Alex Salmond perhaps summed up the theft’s legacy best, writing in the foreword to Stone of Destiny that the stone’s return “testifies to the abiding interest [the heist] created, not just in the ultimate fate of that block of sandstone but in the whole question of the proper relationship between the countries of this island.”
- Claire McLaughlin, OZY Author Contact Claire McLaughlin